Although the rugby season is, sadly, coming to a close, rugby fans have nonetheless been dealt a treat in each of the finals of the major European competitions. They are now fast approaching, each of them looking to be a compelling and exciting fixture. There is plenty to look forward to!
While the controversy surrounding the competition has overshadowed this year’s Heineken Cup, it is still the most coveted trophy on offer. The final this coming Saturday will see the defending champions, Toulon, face debutante finalists, Saracens. Toulon’s spending power has been well documented, which will make their side, full of world renowned players, favourites. Their journey to the final has seen them progress from their group with ease, followed by successive matches against Irish opposition and European heavyweights, Leinster and Munster. While both games were tight, Toulon showed their superiority. From Castrogiovanni in the scrum to Habana on the wing, their side oozes class, and of course their talisman, Johnny Wilkinson, who has recently confirmed his retirement following this season. He will be hoping to replicate the feat from last year and retire with another European trophy. Wilkinson’s battle against Farrell will be one to watch. Farrell has been touted as the heir to the world cup winning hero, and the last time the two faced each other – in last year’s semi-final – it was the old master who came out on top. Farrell and the Saracens will be hoping to turn the tables. Despite Toulon being favourites, Saracens will be serious opposition, having already run in 38 tries this season, helped by a resurgent Chris Ashton. While a touch of fortune came in the quarter final in Belfast, with Ulster playing with 14 men for 75 minutes, there was nothing fortunate about their demolition of Clermont, who up to that point were the tournament favourites. If they put another high intensity performance similar to that, with the power of the Vunipola brothers, the work rate of Burger and the finishing of Strettle, it would be difficult to totally write them off winning their first Heineken Cup. One thing is for sure, it will be a cracking final.
Saracens fans are spoilt for finals this year. They are also featuring in the English Aviva Premiership final facing Northampton Saints. After a long, hard season, few can doubt that the strongest two sides are in the final having only lost 3 and 4 matches respectively out of the 22. Saracens have been at the top of the league for much of the season, with Northampton close at their heels. Both semi-final matches were tense and exciting affairs. Saracens eventually overpowered their opponents Harlequins, despite being down at half time, to record a 31-17 victory. Second half tries from Barritt and Ashton ensured what was eventually a comfortable win. Meanwhile, the other semi-final, contested between Northampton and Leicester was dramatic to the last. Like Saracens, Northampton were down at half time but staged a brilliant comeback to deny Leicester a 10th straight final. Down to ten men following Ma’afu’s red card, they scored a winning try in the dying minutes of the match through Tom Wood. Neither team has had a straightforward route to the final, and predicting the final is certainly not easy, although Saracens will be the favourites. They did afterall top the Aviva Premiership table and have a depth of squad sufficient to compete in both of their finals. Nevertheless, Northampton (who have their own Amlin Challenge Cup final to look forward to) have quality throughout, in particular on the wing where George North provides pace and power like no other. No doubt about it, this final will be another tense and physical affair.
Over the English Channel, French rugby is looking forward to a rematch of last year’s Top 14 final. The superstars of Toulon are seeking French-European double success, but will have to get past defending champions, Castres. Last year, Castres came out on top in a 19-14 victory, but Toulon will be hoping to gain revenge for their defeat. It is their 3rd successive final, but having lost the last two, they will be hoping for 3rd time lucky. Toulon go into the final as odds-on favourites even with them facing the current champions. They have, as already mentioned, a fantastic squad, and they came top of the league. Castres, meanwhile, have battled through to the final after coming 6th after the normal season, but it would be wrong to write them off completely. Having won before, and similarly then against the odds, they are used to the pressure and appear to thrive under it. They also have displayed their resilience and never say die attitude by winning their semi-final with a last minute drop goal from a Seremaia Bai drop goal. From a Scottish perspective, it is encouraging to watch Richie Gray and Max Evans become integral members of a successful side in France. In any case, the final will be a spicy affair, Toulon hoping to put last year’s wrongs right against a confident Castres.
A little closer to home, and the final of the Pro 12 is approaching. For the first time, Glasgow have reached the final, and will face the European powerhouse that is Leinster. It is fitting that these sides face each other, having come 1st and 2nd in the league. In the first of the two semi-finals, Glasgow hosted Munster at a sell-out Scotstoun. In a very competitive and physical affair Glasgow managed to come out on top, even without their main attacking threat in Stuart Hogg. Munster made the more promising start, scoring the opening try, but Glasgow responded and produced a spirited second half display to move in front at 16-15, and then hold out for the tense one point win. In a year of disappointment and dismay in Scottish rugby, this was a welcome result, greeted with much joy, and set up a final against either Leinster or Ulster. In this second semi-final, it was Ulster who took the upper hand in the first half, leading 6 points to nil at the break. In a tight, tactical affair, Leinster fought back and scored the only try through Ian Madigan in the 72nd minute to break Ulster hearts and deny them a place in the final. The final score was 13-9. The final is now going to be held in Dublin, which few can doubt will give Leinster a slight advantage. Their experience will be crucial, but a young, attacking Glasgow side have a fantastic chance to cause an upset. The final will also witness the final match for a true great of the game, Brian O’Driscoll. Leinster fans will hope for a fairy tale end to his career by winning the Pro 12 in a year which he has already won the 6 Nations. It is up to Glasgow to spoil the party.
There is still much to look forward to over the next couple of weeks if you are a European rugby fan. Fantastic finals await, and plenty of questions still need to be answered. Can Toulon and Saracens complete a double? Can either Castres or Northampton cause an upset? Can O’Driscoll win the Pro 12 in his final match, or will Glasgow step up to the mark and provide a fantastic victory? Only time will tell. It is up to us to sit back and enjoy before the summer off season.
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